The Largest Solar Flare Ever Recorded

The largest solar flare ever recorded occurred in 1859 and is known as the Carrington Event. A solar flare is an extreme burst of electromagnetic radiation originating from the sun’s surface. They are classified according to their strength. The weakest solar flares are classified as A-class, increasing in size through the B, C, M, and X-class. The class is then followed by a number to even further classify the solar flare, the higher the number the stronger the flare. The Carrington Event was retrospectively classified as an X45 class. The highest class solar flare we have seen since was only half as strong. While the harmful gamma radiation cannot get through the Earth's atmosphere, other types of radiation can penetrate the atmosphere and cause radio blackouts. The Carrington Event was the first solar flare ever recorded when an astronomer by the name of Richard Carrington was sketching sunspots. He was blinded by a flash of light in an event that lasted around five minutes. The next day telecommunications were malfunctioning and the connection between solar flares and electronic malfunction was formed. The electromagnetic radiation from solar flares can have consequences on Earth. Since 1859, Earth has experienced a few blackouts due to solar flares. 

What Happened During The Event?

Solar flare
Solar flare erupting from the solar surface. Image credit: NASA/SDO

Telegraph systems went haywire all over the world. Reports of sparks flying from telegraph machines were common as the telegraphs ceased regular function. The aurora borealis or the northern lights were visible as far south as the Caribbean and the aurora australis or southern lights were visible as far north as Chile. The aurora was so bright that it lit up the night sky like it was daytime. Even a day after the flare occurred, telegraph machines did not work. However, employees discovered that telegraphs could be sent through the aurora due to how charged the atmosphere was. Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) claim that an event like the Carrington Event only happens once every 500 years.

What If It Happened Today?

Space weather
Illustration of how space weather works. Image credit: NASA/SDO

If a solar flare of the magnitude of the Carrington Event were to happen today, the global consequences could be detrimental. Global communication and navigation could come to a standstill. Luckily the world governments are aware of this threat. The UK government considers space weather to be one of the most dangerous natural disasters in their National Risk Register. It took 17.6 hours for the Carrington Event to reach the Earth. Since the sun is constantly monitored, astronomers would have plenty of time to warn world governments and disconnect from power grids. Astronauts on the International Space Station would also have time to get to an area protected from harmful radiation.